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#613 - Environmental Trends, 26-Aug-1998

Starting in the 1950s, awareness of environmental destruction
developed slowly in the U.S.[1,2] Various events slowly shook the
public awake: Atomic fallout from weapons-testing in the years
1956-1963; a nation- wide pesticide scare in 1959; birth defects
from the drug thalidomide in 1961; Rachel Carson's book SILENT
SPRING in 1962; the discovery of cancer-causing food additives
(such as the artificial sweeteners, cyclamates, in 1969); and
other byproducts of corporate technology, contributed to a
growing awareness of environmental degradation.[3] By 1965, the
dangers of a deteriorating environment were acknowledged at the
highest levels of government; the President's Science Advisory
Committee in 1965 published RESTORING THE QUALITY OF OUR
ENVIRONMENT, a catalog of pollution problems and their effects on
human and environmental health.[4] In 1969, Congress passed the
Environmental Policy Act and in 1970 President Nixon created the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order.

Starting in the late 1960s, the modern "environmental movement"
took shape as activist lawyers and scientists came to the aid of
citizens who were trying to ban the pesticide DDT, prevent air
pollution by stopping new highways, discourage nuclear
technologies and curb obvious water pollutants such as foaming
detergents. During the 1970s, Congress passed a dozen major
environmental laws. Environmental groups hired professional
staffs who were knowledgeable about technologies, pollutants,
regulatory strategies, and politics.

In other industrialized countries, governments and citizens began
similar efforts. The governments of Denmark, the Netherlands,
Britain, Sweden, West Germany, Japan, France, and Canada passed a
series of laws aimed at reversing the trends of environmental
destruction. Here and abroad, universities organized seminars and
conferences and eventually created whole departments devoted to
"environmental studies." A new industry developed, called
"environmental consulting," in which highly- paid specialists
helped governments and private corporations respond to
environmental concerns. The mass media began to devote
significant space to environmental problems. In the U.S.
environmental reporting became a journalistic specialty and a
"Society of Environmental Journalists" was launched. Corporations
with tarnished reputations devoted billions of dollars to
environmentally-preferable technologies, and created a new public
relations industry that specializes in "greenwashing."

Now, after 20 years of intense efforts to reverse the trends of
environmental destruction, the question is, are we succeeding?

So far as we know, only one study has tried to answer this
question in a rigorous way. The study, called INDEX OF
ENVIRONMENTAL TRENDS, was published in April 1995 by the National
Center for Economic and Security Alternatives in Washington,
D.C.[5] In it, the authors measured trends in a wide range of
serious environmental problems facing industrial societies. The
study relied on the best available data, most of it gathered and
maintained by national governments.

The study examined 21 indicators of environmental quality,
summarizing the data into a single numerical "environmental
index." The index shows that, despite 20 years of substantial
effort, each of the nine countries has failed to reverse the
trends of environmental destruction. See Table 1.


Table 1


Denmark: -10.6%
Netherlands: -11.4%
Britain: -14.3%
Sweden: -15.5%
West Germany: -16.5%
Japan: -19.4%
United States: -22.1%
Canada: -38.1%
France: -41.2%

Data from: Gar Alparovitz and others, INDEX OF ENVIRONMENTAL
TRENDS (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Economic and
Security Alternatives, 1995), pg. 2.


Here is a brief discussion of the 21 categories of data from
which the summary index was calculated:

Air Quality

The study used six measures of air quality: sulphur oxides,
nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide,
particulate matter (essentially, soot), and carbon dioxide. The
first five are called "criteria pollutants" in the U.S. The
sixth, carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas, now thought to be
contributing to global warming.

The study found successful reductions of sulfur oxides in all
nine countries, but also found that acid rain --caused by sulfur
oxides -- continues to damage forests in Denmark, Britain and
Germany. The same is true in the U.S. and Canada, so additional
reductions will be needed.

The study did not include "the vast range of hazardous air
pollutants, called 'air toxics' in the United States," because
"regulatory bodies in the nine countries have failed to
comprehensively monitor or regulate most hazardous air
pollutants." The study says, "There are roughly 48,000 industrial
chemicals in the air in the United States, only a quarter of
which are documented with toxicity data."[5,pg.11]

The study also did not include indoor air pollution which is
"virtually unmonitored and... probably on the rise in many of the
countries surveyed."

The study notes that, "The necessary reductions in NOx [nitrogen
oxides] and CO2 [carbon dioxide], it seems, may require far more
change than seems politically possible --major reductions in the
use of private automobiles, for example."[5,pg.11]

Water quality

Water quality in the index is represented by pollution trends of
major rivers within countries. Specific measures include
dissolved oxygen, nitrates, phosphorus, ammonium, and metals.
Unfortunately, national trend data on water quality is generally
poor, compared to data on air quality. For example, in the U.S.,
only 29% of the nation's river miles have been monitored.

The study did not include trends in groundwater quality "because
most countries do not produce national trend data on groundwater
pollution. Yet groundwater in all index countries is
contaminated, and by most measures, the problem has worsened
since 1970," the study says.[5,pg.13] The study did measure
groundwater withdrawals, compared to the natural rate of
replenishment of groundwater.


The study measured production of fertilizers, pesticides, and
industrial chemicals.

The chemical industry continues to grow at a rate of 3.5% each
year, thus doubling in size every 20 years (see REHW #197, #199).
Of the 70,000 chemicals in commercial use in 1995, only 2% had
been fully tested for human health effects, and 70% had not been
tested for any health effects of any kind. At least 1000 new
chemicals are introduced into commercial use each year, largely
untested. If all the laboratory capacity currently available in
the U.S. were devoted to testing new chemicals, only 500 could be
tested each year, the study notes.[5,pg.14] Therefore, even if
the necessary funding were made available, there would be no way
of ever testing all the chemicals that are currently in use, or
all of the new ones being introduced each year.


The study examined trends in municipal wastes and nuclear wastes
in the nine countries. Both kinds of waste are increasing
steadily. Trend data for industrial wastes and hazardous wastes
are not available. The study concludes that, "The United States
is arguably the most wasteful --that is, waste-generating
--society in human history."[5,pg.8]


The study examined the area of wetlands, and the amount of land
devoted to woods in each of the nine countries.

Structural barometers of sustainability

Two additional measures were used in developing the index of
environmental trends: the amount of energy used by each country,
and the total number of automobile miles traveled.


In sum, this study of environmental quality in nine nations
reveals that environmental destruction is continuing, and in some
cases accelerating, despite 20 years of substantial effort to
reverse these trends. The study concludes, "The index data
suggest that achieving across-the-board environmental protection
and restoration will require deeper, more fundamental change than
has yet been attempted in the countries surveyed."[5,pg.5]

The questions raised by this study seem obvious, at least for the
environmental movement:

** Given that we are clearly not succeeding in reversing the
trend of environmental destruction, how can we think that by
merely redoubling our efforts we will begin to succeed?

** Isn't it time we made some serious effort to evaluate what has
worked in the past and what has not worked in the past? It seems
clear that most of what has been tried in the past has not worked
well enough to make a real difference. How, then, can we justify
spending money and time on more of the same?

** Shouldn't we be asking ourselves what path we want to take in
the future? Don't we need to identify a path that might achieve
"deeper, more fundamental change" than we have aimed for in the

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


POLITICS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1955-1985 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 1987).

[2] Roderick Frazier Nash, AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM [Third
Edition] (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990).

Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1977).

[4] John W. Tukey and others, RESTORING THE QUALITY OF OUR
Government Printing Office, November, 1965).

[5] Gar Alparovitz and others, INDEX OF ENVIRONMENTAL TRENDS
(Washington, D.C.: National Center for Economic and Security
Alternatives, 1995). Available for $10 from: National Center for
Economic and Security Alternatives, 2000 P Street, N.W., Suite
330, Washington, D.C. 20036; telephone (202) 835-1150.

Descriptor terms: environmental trends; studies; gar alparovitz;
denmark; netherlands; britain; sweden; west germany; japan; u.s.;
canada; france;